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Fifth Formers of St Clare's

Review by Shagufta Naaz (December 7, 2006)

After a tumultuous, fun-filled journey, the O'Sullivan Twins and their friends are finally at the end of their school career. Or at least as far as Blyton is willing to take them. Thanks to Pamela Cox the girls do eventually make it to the sixth form, but in the meantime, being 'Fifth Formers of St. Clare's' has its own advantages.

This year Blyton had to introduce her new characters a bit more creatively—after all how many students would join a school in the fifth form? So we get Felicity Ray, a musical genius who has, at long last, been promoted from the fourth form, Alma Pudden, who has been demoted from the sixth (danger signals there: what kind of a girl gets demoted at St. Clare's?) and Anne-Marie Longden, a newcomer and a self-professed poet. However the most interesting new girl isn't in the fifth form. She's Claudine's younger sister Antoinette, who's just joined up in the second form and is every bit as irrepressible as her sister.

A coming-of-age book of sorts, 'Fifth' explores heavy issues like power and authority and the abuse of these privileges. One of these privileges is getting juniors to fag for you. In the first book Blyton painted this practice in rosy colours—how it helps bring the senior girls closer to the juniors, gives the younger ones a lesson in humility, etc—but now she shows us how the system can be abused by the wrong people. And one such person is Angela Favorleigh.

By using her 'prettiness and charm' Angela dazzles the younger girls and takes pride in turning them into her 'little slaves'. The poor girls run do her slightest bidding, including even those chores that she is supposed to do herself—like mending. But instead of being grateful, she despises them for falling under her spell and takes pleasure in 'teaching them a lesson'. The beast! This is one of Blyton's classic takes on human nature: blindly worshipping someone isn't likely to earn their respect).

But Angela meets her match in Antoinette, and when she sends for Antoinette to make toast and polish her shoes the results are hilarious, and not quite what Angela expected.

Another person to fall victim to the power bug is Mirabel, who, as sports captain, is riding roughshod over the lower form girls. Furious to learn that a first former, Jane Teal is spending her time mending Angela's clothes instead of practicing lacrosse she forces the girl to choose between being on the team or doing Angela's work. Caught in the crossfire, between Angela's spite and Mirabel's arrogance, Jane has a traumatic time and things only get worse when Mirabel accuses her of spoiling a big sports meeting by causing a false fire alarm. Worn out by the constant stress Jane finally decides to run away, but unfortunately she chooses a night when a lot of people are going to be up to a lot of strange things.

Meanwhile, Anne-Marie isn't finding things too easy. The girls openly scoff at her pretentious poems: 'all words and no meaning' they say, 'this is just pretence'. To add insult to injury, everyone agrees that Felicity, her study-mate is a true genius, so Anne-Marie decides to copy some of the things that Felicity does. Like walk in her sleep. Of course, in Felicity's case sleepwalking is a case of stress overload; the poor girl's parents are forcing her to take a very tough music exam (much against the Headmistress's advice) and she's on the verge of a nervous breakdown.

But Anne-Marie assumes that walking in one's sleep is proof of one's genius and prepares to follow in Felicity's footsteps, scheduling her performance for the same night that Jane Teal has decided to run away.

And that's not all; the first and second forms have scheduled a joint midnight feast for the very same night. To make things even more complicated, Alma Pudden stumbles on their secret stash of food and, being the greediest glutton in the school, can't resist pilfering a few things. Poor Alma, if the book had been written in more recent years she would have gotten more sympathy as the victim of an eating disorder; as it is, she's caught red-handed and humiliated by Antoinette. Tsk Tsk. 'I'll get even with them' vows Alma, and tips Mirabel off who is outraged to hear that the juniors have the cheek to plan a feast on the night before an important match. She decides to sneak up on them and catch them in the act, while Alma plans to keep watch and nip a few more things.

What follows is perhaps one of the most hilarious episodes in the entire canon of Blyton school stories. We have Jane, Anne-Marie, Felicity, Alma, Mirabel and the entire first and second form running loose with Mam'zelle at their heels, thinking that the school is full of thieves.

All ends well (well of course it does!). The miscreants reform, misdemeanours are punished and misunderstandings are cleared up; even Claudine 'catches' a sense of honour at long last. After all, 'St Clare's put its mark on you by the time you were in the fifth form'. The book concludes with the O'Sullivan Twins being chosen as head girls of the school from the next term on, and so ends one of Blyton's most delightful school series.

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